What’s it like to live in a place where freedom of thought is, genuinely, ruthlessly and persistently, suppressed? What is it like to be clever, thoughtful and energetic but to be forced to keep these qualities hidden and in check? What is it like to be governed, severely and unforgivingly, by laws and customs based not on reason but on a codified belief in the supernatural that, by definition, is not susceptible to analysis or debate on the basis of reason? Or, worse, distorts the logic of reason by imposing a frame of reference and a set of premises that are simply beyond question or analysis except in the terms they presuppose.
Answers to these questions can be found by examining the experience of Iran after the 1979 revolution and reading this book is a very good way of doing so.
Azar Nafisi is an academic and a profound lover of literature. This book looks at her experiences and those of her students through the prism of literature. She weaves a commentary on some great works of English literature – the Great Gatsby, Lolita, Pride and Prejudice – into her story of a reading group of her students and how they dealt, individually and collectively, with the madness and oppression of extreme theocracy.
It shares with the works of Orwell, Kundera, Fallada and Zweig an account of how ideology, if sufficiently absolutist, self-deluding and self-righteous can deaden intellectual life and make a lot of lives very miserable indeed.
But it is written with such spirit and confidence that one leaves the book feeling not exactly happy but at least that not all is lost, despite the efforts of the true believers.
Surely we all need to be very alert to the rise of certainty and unquestioned orthodoxy in public life, whether that is a sudden irruption as happened in Iran in 1979 or a gradual process, like the faith in free market theory that crept upon the western world in the 1990s/2000s.
Stand up for scepticism and free thinking, even if you think you know ‘the truth’!